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RESEARCH

What are the social origins of public policy? This question animates my research agenda. I pursue research on this topic because public policy plays a vital role in ameliorating and exacerbating social inequalities. Income and other forms of social inequalities are greater in the United States than in other rich democracies. Public policies like taxation and the provision of public education, the policies at the center of my research agenda, contribute to inequality because neither redistributes income enough to offset large gaps in earnings and wealth. I approach the study of public policy with a comparative and historical perspective. I use both qualitative and quantitative methods to understand the factors associated with policy outcomes, and how policy decisions evolve over time.

 

PUBLISHED WORK

RESISTING THE MARKET UNIVERSITY: POLITICAL CHALLENGES TO THE LOCUS OF AUTHORITY IN PUBLIC UNIVERSITY TUITION POLICY

Jennifer M. Nations - Fall 2018, Social Science History, 42(3)

The devolution of tuition authority, or abdication of tuition-setting control from elected representatives to unelected university governing boards, is an instance of marketization in higher education. Except for New York and Florida, all states have moved closer to a market-priced ideal by “deregulating” tuition. In this article, I describe my analysis of these two negative cases and argue that preexisting higher education policies have lasting effects on the institutional logics to which policy makers and other stakeholders have access, leading to divergent outcomes. What policy makers deem appropriate policy in their local context is shaped by a history of education policy making that likely preceded their position in office. However, the structure of institutions and the founding ideas of those institutions—as preserved in planning documents and remembered by select institutional actors—perpetuate a commitment to a certain institutional logic. Specifically, Florida and New York policy makers were constrained in their decision making about tuition devolution at multiple points in time by a family of institutions logic that reinforced the importance of their state university systems’ lack of formal tiers and their commitment to price similarity. The state policies governing these state systems became politically consequential because policy makers invoked the system cohesiveness mandated by such policies as a principal reason for rejecting devolution proposals. This powerful narrative appears to have precluded the ideational change toward a market university despite a move in this direction in other states.

TAXATION AND CITIZEN VOICE IN SCHOOL DISTRICT PARCEL TAX ELECTIONS

Isaac W. Martin & Jennifer M. Nations - Oct. 29, 2018, Sociological Science

Local taxation produces consequential resource inequalities among public school districts, but little is known about how policy design affects taxpayers’ willingness to pay for schooling. We show that voters are more likely to approve local school taxes if the policy is written to require citizen–state consultation on how the funds are spent. In a sample of 236 California school district elections, the promise of indirect consultation with a citizen advisory board was associated with a 3.7 percentage-point greater share of voters and a probability of passage that was 31 percentage points greater, whereas direct consultation with voters was associated with a 5.7 percentage-point greater share of voters and a probability of passage that was 32 percentage points greater, relative to a proposed tax increase with no consultation. These results provide evidence that citizens may trade increased taxation for increased voice even within an established democracy.

 

BOOK PROJECT

WHO PAYS FOR HIGHER EDUCATION? THE POLITICS OF SHIFTING COLLEGE COSTS FROM THE STATE TO STUDENTS

I am currently focused on my book manuscript, Who Pays for Higher Education? The Politics of Shifting College Costs from the State to Students. Since the 1970s, the share of public university budgets funded by state governments has fallen while student costs have risen. No one—not students, families, policymakers, or university leadership—seems to have wanted costs to shift as much as they have. What explains the cost shift? I find that costs have not shifted at the nation’s public universities because universities are uncommonly greedy or lawmakers have given up on the mission of public higher education. I show that they have shifted because state politicians and higher education leaders built expensive public universities which taxpayers have no structural obligation to fund.


I trace the origins of the policy frameworks that enabled rapid growth for systems of autonomous, public universities. Policy frameworks are the government rules that guided the founding, development, and financing of public higher education systems. While these frameworks allowed autonomous public universities to compete in a national marketplace for faculty and students, they also left public universities vulnerable to funding cuts by providing no guarantee for legislative appropriations during economic downturns. As funding grew scarce, politicians supported public universities as they turned to tuition revenues to replace diminished state support. I show how and why state actors constructed the policy frameworks they did, and why those frameworks have prompted defunding by state lawmakers and greater reliance on tuition dollars. I fit this story into the larger stories of policy change, institutional isomorphism, and state retrenchment in American political development.

 

WORK IN PROGRESS

Jennifer M. Nations & Isaac W. Martin - R&R with Sociological Perspectives

RACIAL CONTEXT AND POLITICAL SUPPORT FOR CALIFORNIA SCHOOL TAXES

The authors investigate the influence of racial diversity on school districts’ ability to raise revenue. Using an original data set of parcel tax measures proposed and adopted in California school districts, we measure the association between racial diversity and school finance outcomes. Our findings yield three main insights. First, racial composition matters most when school district officials are deciding whether to place a tax measure proposal on the ballot. School boards in districts with more Black and Latinx students are less likely to propose parcel tax increases. Second, the prevalence of Black and Latinx students is negatively associated with the proposal of new parcel taxes regardless of the presence or absence of a racial generation gap, or difference between the proportion of White young people and White residents over age 65. Third, we find no evidence that racial composition affects the propensity of voters to approve parcel taxes after they have been proposed, net of controls for district context and policy design features. Funding disparities that arise from differences in taxation between ethnoracially homogeneous and heterogeneous districts appear to arise from the agenda-setting decisions of school district officials.

Jennifer M. Nations - Manuscript

LOGIC TRANSPOSITION AND POLICY INNOVATION: THE DEVELOPMENT OF NEED-BASED FINANCIAL AID IN ARIZONA AND TEXAS

After a disruptive event that forces lawmakers to consider new policy options, one source of innovation can be logic transposition. This is the process by which stakeholders apply a logic from one policy domain to another, previously disassociated, domain. Through logic transposition, politicians and their allies redefine the appropriateness and usefulness of a given policy without redefining their own interests or goals.  I support this argument with an in-depth case study of policy change in two states. Specifically, I exploit the wide variation in expenditures on need-based financial aid between two states—Arizona and Texas—to explain how logic transposition led to the innovation of a new aid program in Texas while Arizona officials have maintained a minimal support program. Higher education leaders and elected officials pursued affirmative action policies in both states. Their paths diverged after 1996 when a circuit court ruling initiated a ban on affirmative action in Texas, while Arizona’s program remained legal. Texas lawmakers sought to pursue integration and diversification goals within this new legal context. They did so by transposing a logic of civil rights on to a race-neutral, need-based aid policy. Arizona lawmakers continued their path dependent trajectory of considering affordability and affirmative action policies separately given that no event challenged the logics separating these approaches.

Jennifer M. Nations - Manuscript

STATE SUPPORT FOR NEED-BASED FINANCIAL AID AND THE POLITICS OF REDISTRIBUTION IN HIGHER EDUCATION

In this paper, I analyze the correlates of state-level need-based aid expenditures. I draw on insights from the study of the welfare state to explain state support for poor students. Using a time series, cross section analysis of an original data set including data for the fifty states between 1981 and 2012, I find that traditional explanations for welfare state effort (e.g., political parties, wealth of the state, and racial threat) predict little of the variation in need-based aid expenditures. Instead, growth in the Hispanic share of the population and more generous state expenditures on higher education specifically explain greater support for need-based aid. I develop the educated citizenry thesis which accounts for the unique relationship between redistribution in higher education and changes in the Hispanic share of populations.

 

FUTURE RESEARCH

STRUCTURAL POSITIONING AND LOCAL HOUSING POLICY

To continue my efforts to understand the social determinants of public policy, I am developing a new research project on local housing policy. Political sociologists often study policy processes at the federal level, leaving local decision making understudied and undertheorized. With this new project I will study local housing advocacy and policymaking, with special attention to the influence of elites and the impact of state and federal regulations on local actors.
San Diego, like many other cities, has struggled to provide the services and housing needed to improve housing availability for the unstably housed and low-income. Local lawmakers and regional organizations frequently discuss housing solutions. Prominent elites are especially active on this issue: a group of wealthy investors has been pushing for years to “move the needle on homelessness.” Despite common goals and agreement that housing is a priority among a wide range of local actors, little has changed. Using interviews, records of public meetings, and news reports, I plan to study how politicians, regional organizations, and elites approach homeless and housing policy. As I have found in other policy domains, I expect that policy actors’ institutional location influences their perception of the issues and solutions. To support this research, and in collaboration with my contacts at the San Diego Housing Federation, I plan to apply for several grants. Specifically, in July and August of 2020, we will apply for funding from the William T. Grant Foundation, ASA’s Community Action Research Initiative, and the Sociological Initiatives Foundation for support.